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Key recommendations from independent assessment of fish deaths

An independent panel has been appointed by the Australian Government, to assess fish death events in December 2018 and January 2019.

The panel found there were three main immediate causes of the fish death events:

  • low flows
  • poor water quality
  • sudden change in temperature.

In the lead up to the fish death events, there were other influencing factors that the panel also considered, including:

  • climatic conditions
  • hydrology and water management
  • Menindee Lakes operations.

The panel has made 27 recommendations for policy makers and water managers to consider. The panel believes it is vital for these recommendations to be implemented in order to protect and restore native fish populations in the Murray–Darling Basin. More fish death events can expected under current conditions—the panel is focused on long-term management to protect native fish species.

Key recommendations for Basin policy makers

Basin policy makers should prioritise:

  • The protection of flows – New South Wales and Queensland should commit to protecting low flows in drier conditions, particularly in the Barwon-Darling and protecting the first flow down the river system after significant rainfall.
  • Basin connectivity – Basin governments should develop flow management strategies and removing barriers to fish movement to protect pools for native fish habitats.
  • Improving Menindee operations – Basin governments should review and consider changes to the Menindee Lakes’ operating procedures
  • Providing joint plans for Northern Basin Toolkit Measures – New South Wales, Queensland and the Murray–Darling Basin Authority should publish their joint plans for implementation of the northern Basin Toolkit Measures, and set an aggressive timeline for delivery.
  • Increase investment in research and development – Basin governments should significantly increase investment in research and development to address knowledge gaps.

Key recommendations for Basin managers

Basin managers should prioritise:

  • Emergency responses and early warning systems – Basin governments should continue using emergency responses (such as aerators) to reduce the chance of further fish death events in the current climate and establish early warning systems.
  • Ongoing monitoring – NSW should undertake monitoring of fish populations in the lower Darling to more fully understand the impacts of the recent fish death events on fish numbers and remaining fish population status.
  • Collaboration with key stakeholders – Basin governments must collaborate with government water scientists, academics and consultants, local communities and Aboriginal stakeholders to develop an authentic native fish management and recovery strategy.
  • Management of water for the environment – Environmental water holders and the MDBA should undertake an assessment to determine how best to manage water for the environment during prolonged dry spells.
  • Climate change research – Basin governments must gain an understanding of how climate change threatens Basin water availability and aquatic ecosystems. This understanding must be obtained ahead of the 2026 Basin Plan review.

The MDBA welcomes the Independent Panel’s recommendations.

Independent Panel

Prof Rob Vertessy (Chair) 

Rob Vertessy has led a distinguished career in water research since graduating with a PhD from the Australian National University in fluvial geomorphology. After leading the Cooperative Research Centre for Catchment Hydrology then CSIRO’s Land and Water Division, he joined the Bureau of Meteorology where he served as the Bureau’s CEO and represented Australia at the World Meteorological Organization.

Professor Vertessy currently conducts research on climate change and water security as an enterprise professor with the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, and chairs the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering’s water forum.

Environmental intelligence is the focus of Professor Vertessy’s consulting company, which has taken him to Asia on behalf of the Australian Water Partnership and the Commonwealth Government to share Australia’s water reform experience. He chairs a number of state and Commonwealth technical committees concerned with climate and water matters.

Daren Barma

Daren is a hydrologist and a river system modeller with extensive experience in water resource management and in particular the Murray-Darling Basin. He has worked on a large number of technical, policy and planning studies in relation to water resource management across New South Wales and Queensland. Daren was the external reviewer for river system models as part of the CSIRO Murray–Darling Basin Sustainable Yields Project and reviewed the river system models used in development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.

Daren Barma is the Director of Barma Water Consulting.

Associate Professor Lee Baumgartner

Dr Lee Baumgartner is an Associate Research Professor in Fisheries and River Management at the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Stuart University. He has over 20 years of research expertise on fish passage, fish migration, flow ecology, invasive species, the impact of human disturbance on aquatic ecosystems and, more recently, the effectiveness of native fish stocking.

Dr Baumgartners' work has also focused on developing innovative methods for assessment and applying this information into revised policy and management frameworks; especially the use of ‘complementary measures’ to recover fish populations. Recently, he has been working in the lower Mekong Basin, specifically understanding mechanisms to help fisheries recover from human disturbance and quantifying the value of fish in a food security context.

He presently sits on a range of national and international fisheries advisory boards.

Professor Nick Bond

Nick Bond is the Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems at La Trobe University, and has more than 20 years experience working on the ecology and hydrology of rivers and streams, with a focus on Australia’s water-stressed regions. His primary research interest is in modelling the effects of flow variability on stream biota and ecosystem processes, and has been involved in environmental flow research and monitoring in Australia, Asia and South America.

Professor Bond holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne, and is an adjunct professor at the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University. He has held leadership roles with several Cooperative Research Centres, helping to establish strong links between research and industry, and translating research to guide water management and policy. He currently sits on a number of scientific advisory panels for state and Commonwealth agencies.

Associate Professor Simon Mitrovic

Associate Professor Simon Mitrovic leads the Freshwater and Estuarine Research Group of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. His focus is applied research on freshwater ecology, harmful algal blooms, environmental flows and plant ecotoxicology. He has worked on the causes and management of freshwater toxic algal blooms in rivers and lakes for over 20 years. 

Associate Professor Mitrovic has experience in working with government departments to solve environmental issues and one of his areas of expertise is river management. He has worked on developing flow regimes to control algal blooms and improve river health. He has also examined toxin production by blue-green algae and some of their ecosystem implications.

Professor Fran Sheldon

Professor Fran Sheldon is a member of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University. She has more than 25 years of experience in aquatic ecosystem health, arid stream and river ecology, freshwater invertebrate ecology and urban streams.

Professor Sheldon has led and participated in a number of major national research programs, and has a significant record of published academic work. Her research has informed and influenced management practices across aquatic ecosystems within Australia.

Professor Sheldon is currently the Dean of Learning and Teaching at Griffith University.

Updated: 16 Jun 2020